Noah Smith offers a much smarter alternative to the Green New Deal. Innovation focused with big dollars for R&D, trade incentives and carbon tax.
How good intentions went wrong on guaranteed student loans. Massive inflation and debt loads.
Worth revisiting in these times: Bertrand Russell’s 10 Commandments.
The libertarian, regenerative (and profitable) farmer Joel Salatin laments the WSJ report on failing mega farms.
Holistic and functional medicine goes big time - great interview with CEO of Cleveland Clinic on the changing view of health and getting to root causes (i.e. food, environment, lifestyle).
“Think small, get big. Think big, get small.” Herb Kelleher
In 2018, after 7 years and $600m spent, the Intensive Partnership for Effective Teaching declared failure. The non-profit effort designed to measure and manage teacher success was backed by the biggest minds and wallets (including Bill Gates) and mounds of research projecting its success. It was the latest in a string of efforts in education that had underwhelmed despite massive conviction—and resources.
In 2009, the same year the Intensive Partnership started, a young hedge fund analyst named Salman Khan quit his job to publish and manage a site devoted to tutoring videos he had created to help his young cousin in school. He was backed by one small donor. In 2016, Khan Academy was serving over 12 million students per month in 30 languages. The Gates foundation is now a major backer.
Like many successes, the rise of Khan Academy was organic and unexpected. Its emergence came from a real-world problem, solved in a small way that just grew and grew as others saw value. It started small and scaled one user at a time—not based on a massive donation. No foundation was behind it —just a little seed money and a lot of time from a committed founder. This is how success happens in the for-profit world every day. The non-profit world surely needs more of it.
In the last decade, the movement of Effective Altruism has raised the bar for donors to scrutinize their gifts and prioritize those with the biggest measured impact. Inspired by the work of Peter Singer, the new class of mega donors (lead by the Gates Foundation) have set up large organizations to study projects to ensure maximum positive impact on the dollars going out the door. Problems are heavily researched and fundable solutions examined by subject matter experts (at least those with big resumés and experience in the chosen field). The question is would these organizations ever have backed Salman Khan in the early days? Well, they didn’t.
Effective altruism is at its best when it attacks clear misallocations—like major gifts to already mega-rich universities. Malcolm Gladwell famously ridiculed hedge fund manager John Paulson’s large gift saying: “If billionaires don’t step up, Harvard could be down to its last $30 billion.” There are arguments for these gifts (research and development, etc.) but it’s hard to debate ego-building isn’t a primary driver.
But Effective Altruism is a lot less helpful when it comes to giving for the purpose of solving complex issues—poverty, disease, racial achievement gaps, education, global warming. The movement proposes a cold hard rational view of impact and raises the bar on giving to solutions backed by evidence. But, these are complex, intractable problems for a reason—there are no easy answers. Money alone is absolutely not the issue. Yet, mega charities need solutions for their massive endowments. So when they see a bit of success—they pounce, pouring millions into scaling—just as happened with the Intensive Partnership. They have billions to spend after all. They want to play big and play fast to change the world. But failures often follow. The desire to get massive, fast impact is noble—but usually unsuccessful.
The problem with innovative ideas is they only look obvious in hindsight. Sam Altman of YC says, “Great ideas are fragile. They are easy to kill.” Big companies are terrible at innovation for just this reason. Big companies need big ideas. And big ideas need big budgets. And big budgets need great oversight. So safe, logical ideas in obvious opportunities get the funds and often get micromanaged to death. Consider the Zune iPod killer at Microsoft, rideshare at Ford, social networking at Google or countless other examples of massive enterprise innovation efforts.
Real innovation in business almost always arises from the highly inefficient venture community and the naive but optimistic founders they back. It takes hundreds of failures for any one big breakthrough. And the vast majority of the winners are unlikely in some obvious way. What makes us think non-profit work is any different?
How do we seed hundreds more Salman Khans? The Effective Altruism movement surely does not encourage more of them. Investment to pursue new and unorthodox ideas will result in too much failure. Luckily Khan had the time and resources to pursue his passion. Many don’t.
There are emerging models to help people with similar passions from the Genius Grants of the MacArthur foundation to Tyler Cowen’s new Emergent Ventures to YCombinator’s move to fund non-profits. We need more. The big foundations should create slices of capital for seed philanthropy. Pools should emerge so small donors can fund a portfolio of ideas.
Many will say this approach will miss big ideas and diminish the ambition so prevalent in foundations like Gates. Khan Academy, after all, is just a tutoring service that has not radically changed education. But big change takes time—and steps. Khan has cracked the code on the power of “one-to-many” teaching. It is a set of shoulders on which others will build. Its lessons will spawn many new ideas. My hunch is all revolutions need these sparks. Successes build over time, they are not born. All for-profit companies work this way. Who would give a startup $100 million on day 1? Seed investors are critical to businesses. When seeds blossom, Series A investors are there to keep them going, then growth capital and public markets. Gates, Bezos and many other large foundations play these big capital roles. But, the seed funds don’t really exist.
The great thing about seed philanthropy as a concept is it levels the playing field. It is daunting for anyone engaged in philanthropy to feel they can make a difference when Gates and Bezos are throwing billions around. As I look to establish my own giving strategies, I am excited to explore these concepts and how to move them forward. Updates to come.
The always great Charlie Munger on investing, overconfidence, healthcare and more.
The Republican Congress just passed the biggest land conservation bill in decades!
Europe is headed for disaster and the pain will likely start in Italy. This situation could be the trigger to the next recession…and global crisis.
Yes NYC was giving big incentives to the company headed by the world’s richest man. But, the case that it would generate a great return are very compelling.
Unexpected high praise for the Lorena Bobbitt documentary. Might have to watch it.
A great overview of the myths and realities of wage stagnation over the years. Lots of causes but healthcare benefits ate up a lot of gains.
Fox News is widely regarded as the biggest game changer in media in the last 20 years. Fox politicized the news and helped spawn the outrage culture that consumes us today. Despite Fox’s dominance and the rise of left-leaning MSNBC in response, something big is happening in alternative media. It can’t come soon enough.
In 2018, an average of 2.4 million people watched Fox News during weeknight prime time. The lineup most evenings peaked at 3.2 million viewers during Sean Hannity’s hour. Both were #1 for cable news.
10 years ago, as Fox was gaining steam, a former B-list actor and comedian started a podcast to interview friends and have freewheeling discussions about current events - serious and otherwise. Today, the Joe Rogan Experience is listened to by over 10 million people each episode. It has been said to peak well over 20 million. These are numbers that rival 60 Minutes. And the podcasting revolution he started has exploded.
Joe Rogan is surely not for everyone. His audience skews male and he often interviews crude comedians and MMA fighters. But, he talks to all sorts whose ideas are relevant and thought-provoking - from physicists to business people to politicians. And his style and approach have created a set of norms for podcasting that is being followed by all sorts of voices. These norms are a welcome change that couldn’t be further from the standards of cable news.
First off, he dives deep into issues. Just this week, Andrew Yang, the entrepreneur turned Presidential candidate and chief advocate for universal basic income, was on the show - for two and a half hours. No four-minute, four-paneled yelling head segments. Two plus hours of real conversation and deep probing of the topics at hand - jobs, training and worker displacement. That is actually a short segment for Rogan. And it was interesting all the way through.
Second, he is genuinely curious. He wants to learn and brings little ego or arrogance to the conversation. His humility is endearing and opens guests up. He is not afraid of dumb questions because he is unashamed of his own ignorance and views himself as a regular person trying to figure things out.
Third, he is genuinely open to changing his mind. The left criticizes Rogan for talking to fringe figures like Alex Jones, but his views are clearly left of center. He is just no ideologue. His outlook is practical and fully aware that we live in a massively complex world where change is happening at such a pace that any opinion must be loosely held.
Finally, he takes his job seriously but has fun. He was recently criticized for going too easy on Jack Dorsey. He agreed - and said he could do better. But, he was mostly disappointed because the interview was boring. He wants to hold his audience for 3 hours - an almost impossible task in our low attention culture. He cusses too much and drinks with his guests. He gets at real issues and you can’t help learning deeply along with him.
Our cable news overlords do it exactly the opposite: rapid-fire outrage, talking heads with the hottest takes, headline level explanations. But anyone trying to dispute the simple story can do it easily by presenting the nuance and complexity behind the rhetoric. This dynamic is what has created the distrust of the media. The problem isn’t fake news, but shallow news.
Remember hearing that Elon Musk smoked pot in an interview? Well, that was on Joe Rogan. You likely heard about it on cable news. Or in the NY Times. Or the Wall St Journal. It was everywhere. But, the press lost the plot. If you listened to the full 3 hours you would know why Elon Musk is so successful and important. He explained the challenges of building a car company, the difficulty of escaping gravity at low cost, the unlikely emergence of flying cars, the threat of AI and tons more. Go listen to it. By the end, it is clear he is one of the most compelling and important people of this century. His deep understanding of his own inventions and the sheer audacity of each of them is just unparalleled.
Then he had one toke of a joint.
That’s all you heard if you just watch cable news. Or read a newspaper. Or surf the web.
Musk went on to say he didn’t like it. Why? It made people (and him) unproductive. Did you read that in the news? There was no time. There was no viewership in hard work and future ideas. But a CEO smoking dope? That’s cable news gold.
But, here’s what’s changing. 20 million people have watched the video on Youtube. 15 million more have listened to it in podcast form. That is massive reach. The power is shifting. People are getting informed and making their own judgments. Joe Rogan is just the start. Kara Swisher, Ezra Klein, Sam Harris and many more who used to write articles and books are consumed with long-form podcasts. They are learning that people want to hear the full story and will take the time to do it (just as they will watch 100 hours of Game of Thrones).
This information shift is massive and will impact public opinion in big ways in the years ahead. If 2016 was the Facebook election, 2020 might just be the podcast election. We will surely be better informed - and better off. Thanks Joe Rogan for starting it all.
A profile of the greatest business you’ve never heard of…unless you live in Texas.
Good thoughts from all sides on the 70% marginal tax rate proposed by AOC and others.
Universal basic income supporters think there will be no jobs in the future. My guess is there will be plenty - we just don’t know what they will be. Fastest growing job last year: solar and wind installers.
Russ Roberts walks through the basic logic of why socialism is a bad idea (and has failed whenever tried).
The 2020 race to take down Trump is officially underway. The early Democratic field is canvassing Iowa trotting out an undifferentiated mix of liberal policies, mostly inspired by the progressive resistance and the provocative (and highly effective) Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
They won’t win. Well, they won’t beat Trump.
If Dems want to retake the White House, they will have to get to the open minded, middle of the road undecideds that put him there. The same way Obama did. And Bush and Bill Clinton before him.
Yes, we think we live in a Fox and MSNBC nation, but the truth is that the hardened wings can’t be moved and don’t swing elections. Presidential elections have been decided by narrow margins for decades so the swing voter makes the call. And, every four years, the difference for those undecideds has been finding someone willing to disrupt their own hard core base. The press follows the activists on both sides and Twitter echoes their orthodox views and outrage, but the middle sides with the one most impure. As proof, 6 million people who voted for Obama switched to Trump. It is impossible for a Democrat now to see Trump as undermining the hardened GOP, but as a candidate he massively disrupted GOP orthodoxy and was viewed as much more moderate than Hillary.
Poll after poll shows a large and mushy center at our politics. Many of these folks lean to a party but the truth is they are motivated mostly by distaste of the other side. So, the politician that shows the most leadership taking on the core of their party draws independent appeal. Clinton: the new Democrat. Bush: the compassionate conservative. Obama: the post-racial uniter of purple America. Trump: the secular anti-globalist. The words they used told the electorate they could lead and push change even inside their own rigid tents. And the middle looking for a breakout of our decades-long red-blue warfare loves it.
Trump remains a powerful wildcard in this regard despite being much more conservative in office than in campaigning. Back then, he challenged GOP orthodoxy by fighting free trade, mass immigration and the overreaching foreign policy of the neo-cons. Since, he signed the crime bill. That’s about it on the moderate side. But, he looks open to dealing for DACA. And he is sticking hard to fighting China despite the GOP free trade hard liners telling him to deal quickly.
The Dems better not count on his bad character or Mueller to bail them out. Neither will. Even his core supporters know his style is reckless and unbecoming (only 1/3 viewed him as honest in 2016), but they take the whole package: a rebel pushing new boundaries. My guess is he will push to the center in the coming years and Ann Coulter will get more upset—an important signal to the independents. If left facing an true progressive, he will be hard to beat.
Who is up for it on the left? Well, the key question as a candidate is: who are you willing to offend on your own side? How can you show independence in a way that signals the potential to pull us all together?
Who will challenge the politically correct identity politics that consumes the left? Who will push for a real education revolution not just speak of more spending? Who will push for an energy explosion built on new tech not just a call for energy conservation and austerity? Who will develop an optimistic plan for a rapidly changing world not just fight for the return of a world gone by? Who will not just propose new taxes but demand they are spent effectively? Who will fight not just for redistribution but build meaningful plans for the struggling?
Right now, there is little evidence of any the current Dem field will do it. They all sing from the same playbook: Medicare for all, free college and new major taxes on the rich.
The progressive base assumes Trump will be easy to beat. I get it (and hope they are right!). But, their purity tests will be their undoing. Being against everything Trump and Republican is a sacred touchstone for the earliest backers and party leaders. And so the current candidates are getting boxed in as they lay out their progressive plans. Could a new entrant like a Beto or a Bloomberg thrive despite their less than sterling progressive credentials? Can someone, anyone, muster a Sister Souljah moment? Without one, I think they are toast.
All signs point to independents looking for reasons not to vote for Trump. But the lessons of the past are clear - winning candidates transcend their parties. Who has the courage to do it?
P.S. A true independent like Howard Schultz does not fit the bill. Pissing off everyone is no way to get elected. The key is winning the party core while giving the middle reasons for hope. However, if he gains traction he could force major Democrats to moderate and hence be more competitive long term.
EconTalk is one of my favorite podcasts. Here’s a good summary of the top episodes although it leaves out my favorite episode: a fascinating look at the rise of opioids with Sam Quinones.
The biggest issue this week no one is talking about is the LA teacher’s strike. The LA system is shrinking and pretty ineffective. Is it class sizes, teacher pay, overall underfunding - or a bad system perpetuated by the union? We better figure it out as this issue is due to spread nationwide.
The best selling truck in the world is going electric.
Bob Lefsetz praises the greatest show ever, The Sopranos, and laments the rise of the new white collar gangsters.
Must read small book. Tribe by Sebastian Junger. “Why do large scale disasters produce such mentally healthy conditions?”
In praise of Judith Rich, the amateur psychologist who made the biggest impact on parenting advice by showing how little impact they really have. It’s the peers who exert the influence.
In 2000, Toyota launched its Prius hybrid car in the US. Environmentalists cheered the arrival of a super fuel efficient mainstream car and the dawn of the green economy.
18 years later, the Prius is struggling and massive SUVs dominate auto sales. The Prius was supposed to kick off an era of clean transport, but instead it sparked the age of gas guzzlers. Ironically, the Prius contributed to this mess, slowing down the revolution it hoped to start.
To be clear, I am not here to debate global warming. It is a pressing issue and reducing carbon consumption is imperative. Furthermore, the intent of the Prius and its buyers was right in line with this mandate. But, feel good solutions often don’t have the impact they intend. And in many cases, like with the Prius, they make things worse.
The Prius as a solution to our fuel problems had one fundamental problem from the outset: it was and remains a bad product. It is a poorer performing car sold at a premium price. It is slow, not fun to drive, unattractive, uncomfortable, and worst of all, more expensive than similar car options! It’s inherent promise was providing a visible sacrifice you can make for the planet. There is a reason it was made to stick out visibly: so its buyers could signal loudly their care for the planet. It was a political purchase. But, the simple fact is: ideological solutions do not scale. They can kick off movements, but there must be a systemic advance to get real change.
Embedded in the Prius was a systemic step backwards. The oil companies could not have drawn it up better. The Prius was living proof that the green movement would involve real costs: higher prices for worse products. If we wanted to fight global warming there would be massive sacrifice. The future would not be brighter...only cleaner. Those living in poor countries would need to hold off on advancing their economies and goods would need to rise in price. No super cheap cars for you!
The results are clear. Global warming has become a massive political football always framed as a trade off between saving the planet or growing the economy. And the carbon keeps spewing. It didn’t have to be this way.
Imagine another path. A new clean car is created that is better in every way than traditional cars - faster, more fun, more advanced, more capable and better looking than any car on the road today. As we all know, it happened. It’s called a Tesla. And it changed the world’s view of the future. The Tesla proved electric cars are not as good as combustion cars, but much better. The proof? Electric will be the default platform with almost every car maker in the coming years. Of course, cost is an issue. But, the path to lower costs are clear. Electric cars are massively cheaper to operate and their primary cost, batteries, are showing the kinds of cost curves typical of all tech that approaches massive scale.
And it’s not just emissions that are going to go down. The electricity infrastructure electric cars rely on is greening at a rapid pace with coal powered plans continuing to shut down and solar prices hitting rock bottom.
Now what we need is for environmentalists to bail on the Prius and use the Tesla to reposition their effort. We can have a better future: abundant clean energy with better products! We need to make the global warming fight not the biggest sacrifice of our lifetime but the biggest opportunity.
People forget that Tesla’s mission is “To accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy.” They are doing it. The green movement gives them no credit (“fancy cars for rich people”). But, the environmental impact of Tesla is undeniable and will spark a green movement that truly can scale because it does not rely on ideological commitment.
“Prius problems” exist all over the place. Activist movements are vital to sparking change. But, they tend to focus on direct and emotional wins not systemic ones. If you are hyper passionate about an issue—immigration, factory farming, free speech, taxes—be careful of embracing a Prius problem. You could be doing more harm than good.